A Mini-guide to Megachurches

When Harvard professor Robert Putnam was giving the Service
Employees International Union (SEIU) tips on how to revitalize the
labor movement, he argued that the social network fostered at union
halls has dissolved, as has the bygone era of the tightly knit
neighborhood. And suburbanites and exurbanites are now turning to
megachurches.

‘Megachurches have done an incredible job of helping people find
a sense of community,’
SEIU President
Andrew Stern tells the Associated Press
.

These new communities are dependent on being oversized (the
typical megachurch has at least 2,000 members) and intimate at the
same time. The faithful are drawn and reassured by the huge
congregation (consumer confidence in numbers,

James B. Twitchell suggests in Mother Jones
). Small
‘cell groups’ then provide the personal interaction that’s drowned
out in the comforting sea of worshipers.

At megachurches, individual needs reign supreme. The freshly
built, mall-like structures offer child-care services, food courts,
book stores, youth programs, and counseling for what ails you:
financial issues, marriage problems, sexual addiction, chemical
dependency. There is no burdensome talk of fire and brimstone or a
dictate to serve the poor. Those are downers. These churches
flourish by making people feel good about themselves and the search
for prosperity.

It’s textbook good business management: Know your customer.
Pastor Ted Haggard at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs,
which Harper’s Magazine calls ‘America’s most powerful
megachurch,’ has mastered this tack. ‘He knows that for
Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than
‘moral values’ — it needs customer value,’
Jeff Sharlet
writes
. Community surveys have guided pastors in shaping their
churches: Don’t be overbearing, promote casual dress, make men feel
comfortable, and, above all, entertain.

The business know-how is paying off,
BusinessWeek reports. While mainline denominations are
shrinking and struggling to retain members, megachurches have
surged to number 880 compared with 50 in 1980. Donations and
tithing bring in millions, while the huge complexes can employ
hundreds. The booming business even has

drawn Corporate America into the mix
. And it’s not just
Christian books, tapes, and ‘inspirational giftware.’ According to
WORLD Magazine, a Christian publication, ‘a new kind
of retail evangelism’ may be emerging, embodied by the Southern
California skateboard-chic chain C28 (for Colossians 2:8).

It’s big business, but it’s big politics, too.

Seventy-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants voted for
Bush in 2004
, and as ‘Justice Sunday’ recently drove home,
conservative strategists are adept at reaching out to megachurch
communities.

‘[Megachurches] deserve to be taken seriously,’

Twitchell writes in Mother Jones
, ‘if only because
they help explain why George W. Bush is still sitting in the Oval
Office and how suburban malaise can be transformed into a multitude
of organized, values-driven voters.’

Go there >>

Earthly Empires

Go there too >>
Unions Seek Fix
in Churches, Elsewhere, for Labor’s Woes

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